Friday, June 28, 2013

Emerson's Development

1. He who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet — The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing — But in the third stage the great question begins to bore you — Searching for the inner dialectic; 2. Philosopher: one whose art of living is bound up with theory — Whicher on Emerson: acquiescence — The Principle of Compensation and the Principle of Self-Reliance; 3. The tragic lapse theory of Emerson’s inner life — How do you reconcile the inner turmoil with the outer production? — Lapsarian accounts: right about biography, wrong about philosophy; 4. The Principle of Mood — Emerson’s dualism between monism/dualism — Assertion is relative to the mood in when we make them; 5. Juxtaposing “The Poet” and “Experience” — Nature loves to hide — Dream delivers us to dream — Romanticism’s promise of power as a dream to be actualized; 6. Whicher and Mumford — Self-preservation and self-transformation — Transformation and resistance, continuity and change

1.      Harold Bloom once said that “critics, in their secret hearts, love continuities, but he who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet.” [1] One of the things Bloom meant about critics is that they are like metaphysicians, philosophers—these are the kinds of chaps who look for the meaning of things, for a reason why X happened and not Y. This is, pushed to the extreme, reduction which leads to monism. The things disappear beneath the meaning you’ve extracted, and do that enough times and you’ll be left with one thing—Meaning/Reason. (This is why logos is the enveloping term in Greek idealism.) [2]

A more practical version of this is the scholar’s dismay at the fox. As Isaiah Berlin reminded us, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For Berlin, this was a distinction between those with “a single central vision, one system” and those “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” [3] Scholars like to connect things; they like to explain why X was written. And it is, honestly, much easier if the writer is a hedgehog, because then you can keep drawing connections back to the central thesis that you’ve sussed out on behalf of the writer. This becomes particularly important as a tool of efficiency if the writer in question wrote material over a long period of time—first book or last, juvenilia or marginalia, hey, wouldn’t you know: it says the same thing.

Life (sigh) is never like this, though it’s difficult to imagine why we’d want to spend so much of our time as scholars on such imagined repetition. But we do like order—we like it when a writer does things for reasons that form a pattern. We don’t like it when those reasons are boring. Why did John Grisham write The Firm? To make money? Yawn. Why did Harriet Beecher Stowe write Uncle Tom’s Cabin? To fight racism? Okay, that’s more interesting; I can work with that. Why did Heidegger turn away from Being and Time? Because he realized that the goal of metaphysics was to both do it and transcend it and so had to work out a way of realizing both his own ambitions for conceptual mastery and desires for mystical silence? Now we’re talking. We like people like J. M. Coetzee, who described this hoped-for hedgehogginess thus:
One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere. [4]
(The third stage, of course, is back to Yawnsville, but then I think that might be precisely the point.)

When we fail at coming up with a single ambition or vision that a writer adheres to, we like just as much the challenge of showing how a writer unfolds via an inner dialectic. “Ralph was bored so he asked himself a different question” isn’t good enough—doesn’t really seem to merit attention (by itself). But how Richard Rorty’s first famous article, “Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories” (1965), displays the central conceptual move that leads to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and from there to Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, but equally that that first article is not Rorty’s answer to the mind-body problem, nor is Mirror Rorty’s final answer about philosophy—that is interesting. It takes time to show, and to show it is to shed new and needed light on what Rorty was really doing.

2.      This search for an inner dialectic works quite well when approaching the central American Romantics, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville. It’s easy to tell a “death of the imagination” narrative with Hawthorne and a “retreat to private expression” narrative with Melville. Emerson’s tale of development was established definitively by Stephen Whicher. Whicher’s Freedom and Fate (1953) is the beginning point for any serious scholarly work on Emerson, [7] and especially any work on Emerson as a philosopher. For Whicher’s book is about Emerson’s “inner life,” and Emerson’s inner life was taken up by the obsession with intellectual problems. Whicher shows how Emerson is a philosopher in Alexander Nehamas’s sense, someone whose art of living is bound up with the propounding of theoretical theses. [8]

Whicher’s central story is one of “acquiescence” (xvi). The general gist goes like this: Emerson’s first stage was the impress of the typical New England heritage of a Calvinistic belief in God’s Providence. However, do to the watering down of “the white-hot core of the original Calvinistic piety” (8) in Unitarianism, Emerson became susceptible to Humean doubt. This doubt laid waste to all the underpinnings of his faith in Providence, without actually touching the faith itself. This meant that natural, rational, and supernatural paths of justification were out for Emerson, but what saved him was the realization that God was within him—Emerson turns the original Protestant Reformation into a full-blown revolution. “The rock on which he thereafter based his life was the knowledge that the soul of man does not merely, as had long been taught, contain a spark or drop or breath of voice of God; it is God” (21).

So the first two stages of Emerson’s development, that take us to the resignation of his post in the Unitarian Church, give us the interaction of two fundamental principles to understand Emerson: 1) his faith in God’s Providence becomes Emerson’s Principle of Compensation which is then supplemented by 2) the God-within which becomes the Principle of Self-Reliance. The story that Whicher tells is that in the third stage the Principle of Self-Reliance expands into a kind of power madness, “that when Emerson found a basis for the assertion of unconditional good, in his discovery of the God within the soul, the law of compensation slipped into a subordinate place in his thoughts” (39). Finding God within gave Emerson the sense that all of our shackles were man-made, and thus paled in comparison to the power we had when we relied instead on God for support. Mad with his belief that he could do anything, Emerson’s Principle of Self-Reliance quite naturally collapses under its own weight, from the unbalanced ratio between claims-of-power and evidence-for-power. The more the world “remained obdurately independent of his will” (60), the more he saw that the Principle of Self-Reliance was clearly not all there was. So in the fifth and final stage, the Principle of Compensation returns in order to circumscribe the power announced by Self-Reliance. And so the promise of freedom Emerson felt with the discovery of the God within is diminished as he acquiesces to the encompassing demands of fate.

3.      There is something very powerful and importantly right about Whicher’s narrative. However, there are two interlocked problems that should lead us to dissent from the conclusions Whicher draws about Emerson’s philosophical attitude. The first is the condensation of the proposed shift between all five stages at the very beginning of his career. The evidence Whicher accumulates doesn’t point at a steady development, but that the major movement of acquiescence has already occurred by Essays, First Series (1941). Nature (1836) is, without a doubt, a bewildering text that does not see Emerson at the height of his powers, but everyone affirms that all the action is in his first two books of essays. [9] How can his most powerful moments be an acquiescence?

Given that the evidence of the interplay between the Principle of Compensation and the Principle of Self-Reliance is present at minimum in seed form even at the beginning of his career as writer, it is equally easy to mark not a sharp break but a gradual unfolding of the essential elements of his mature thought. The difference between the two is that what Lawrence Buell calls Whicher’s “tragic lapse theory of Emerson’s inner life” [10] doesn’t do well in suggesting that Emerson has a coherent philosophy. In essence, Whicher explains away incoherence as biographically legible conflict that is, indeed, conceptually bunk. This treatment, of course, is given industrial strength justification by Emerson himself, his most famous line being “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (“Self-Reliance”).

So the second problem that leads from the first is that Whicher’s account doesn’t precisely help us read the final product. The reason is simple: there’s a reason that Emerson’s journals were raided for the final product of his polished essays and that things appeared as they did, and other things (from the journals) disappeared as they did. The question is what those local reasons were, something that would aid our ability to interpret how the essays hang together as they stand. We should not use the journals to explain away the need for us to think hard about what Emerson was meaning to do in the essays. Barbara Packer, in her book which we should see as an extension of Whicher’s account, summarizes the scholarly problem well in relation to Nature: the problem is in “finding a stylistically sensitive way of reconciling a diachronic account of the book’s genesis and growth with a synchronic account of its structure.” [11]

The main thesis I would forward is that Whicher-Packer lapsarian accounts are broadly right about Emerson’s biography, but wrong about his philosophy. I think such biographical sleuthing has been successful in establishing that Emerson’s initial, cosmically high hopes about the power that could be unleashed within each of us were tragically dashed—what I don’t think they’ve done as well in is in suggesting what Emerson did with that tragedy in constructing his philosophy. In particular, formulating the account as lapsarian gives us exactly the wrong handle on the heart of Emerson’s thought. Emerson may have thought in such biblical terms as the Fall of Man, and mythologized the paradox of having infinite power within while continuing to fail without in those terms, but the central strain of Emerson that faces the future breaks radically with these modes of thought, and so to interpret him according to them is to darken precisely what is most enlightening about him on our problems.

4.      Whicher’s problem, I think, is that he doesn’t ascribe enough importance to what I shall call Emerson’s Principle of Mood. I think the hidden message of Emerson’s trajectory is not the fundamental importance of the struggle between the optimistic power of Self-Reliance against the pessimistic power of Fate (which has significant prima facie evidence in the trajectory to The Conduct of Life), but the struggle between the promise he felt in Self-Reliance and it’s ephemerality in the face of changing moods. The Principle of Compensation, which is always overinfluenced by Emerson’s faith in Providence (which is quite cheery), gives way to Mood as the most important element waging battle against Emerson’s optimism. It isn’t optimism vs. pessimism, but optimism vs. optimism/pessimism.

The conceptual source of Whicher’s rhetoric of acquiescence is his sense that Emerson is trying, and failing, to find a way to live in the Power of His Soul all the time. I think all of the following summarizing moments go wrong on precisely the point I’m addressing, and they mount in a steady progression (italics are all mine): “Though not quite ready himself to give up to the soul beyond the possibility of a quick self-recovery, the thought then central to his mind was of a new state of life, a state of greatness and freedom beyond anything in human experience, into which, if he could only hit upon the password, he and all men might at any moment enter” (48); “If freedom lay only in the total self-trust of greatness, and if in fact he could be great only in inceptions and not in act, how did his new faith free him?” (70); “Even if we drop the question of action, and seek on ‘Reality,’ the problem still remains, How is such wholeness to be won and kept?” (83-4); “But the radical defect of man, the creator in the finite, is his incapacity to maintain his creative force. ‘The only sin is limitation’—but this is original sin beyond the power of grace” (97); “Man is promised the world—a promise perpetually renewed and never kept” (111). You can tell Whicher’s account begins to lose explanatory power when he perversely construes Emerson’s exuberant redescription of sin as a lapsarian tragedy. He may, biographically, have been looking for a password and totality, but the philosophy we get in its finished form is not like this. Emerson’s tragic optimism lays precisely in his giving up of the desire for completeness—not as a lost hope, but as a dumb hope. (And this, to me, seems perfectly consistent with having to be reminded oneself about how dumb one’s hopes might be.)

I think we can find this sense of duality—between the elated promise of independence and the depressed realization of its fragmented nature—in his published work, from beginning to end. Less than a year after the publication of Nature, Emerson writes in his journal “A believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two.” [13] For Emerson, Unity is the essence of God and thus Self-Reliance’s promise of power, and thus duality is a fragmented deflation of that promise. What I think we find in Emerson’s writing is a dualism between monism/dualism—depending on mood, he sees the world through one lens, and then another.

The importance of the circumscription of mood is that it creates a radical positionality to the Emersonian utterance. And this is how we are to understand Emerson’s hobgoblin—for while it makes sense to say that you cannot hold both “there is a god” and “there is no god,” what sense does it make to say that you cannot be both happy and sad? Oh—at the same time, sure, but it certainly doesn’t make any sense to say that a person is being incoherent when they wake up in the morning happy and end the evening sad. Emerson’s radical thought is that our assertions about the world are equally relative to the mood we are in when we make them. And this then makes conceptual coherence a more complex affair to adjudicate the importance of. This means that to understand the most important syntactical unit in the Emersonian corpus—the sentence—you have to ascribe a mood, and that way mount a picture of coherence relative to the kinds of moods. The Principle of Mood is essentially the claim that it is rhetoric all the way down, that we are always contextually and rhetorically defined—but more, for it points the way toward a necessary expansion of our conceptual accounts to include the emotions, passions, temperament, attitude. So while the last half the 20th century has pretty much seen the rhetorical stance become common sense for the intellectuals, we still have Emerson sitting beyond.

5.      On the surface, the necessity of understanding the text in context seems so obvious in terms of understanding anything as having one particular meaning as opposed to another that to invoke it to justify apparent contradiction looks suspiciously convenient (which is what many of Emerson’s contemporaries thought—Melville, for one). So I’d like to give one example that illustrates how Emerson uses this thought in a constructive mode. Emblematic of this general train of thought is the first two essays of Essays, Series Two: “The Poet” and “Experience.” These two essays cannot be read separately without giving a very misleading picture of Emerson’s vision. “The Poet” gives us a predictably up-beat picture—by this time, even to his contemporaries, Emerson was The Optimist. “The poet is the sayer, the namer … a sovereign, and stands on the centre.” “The Universe is the externization of the soul.” “Poets are thus liberating gods.” But in “Experience,” Emerson uses the death of his son, Waldo, to establish the much darker tone of the piece, offering this disturbing reaction:
In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity; it does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.
I don’t intend to here attempt to read this passage, which continues to shock our sensibilities. (I should add that Emerson’s grief in his journal is overwhelming—if there is anything in his published work that needs to be understood according to the Principle of Mood, it is this passage.) For now I simply offer the above two cross selections to establish the tenor of the essays as a whole. What I want to instead compare are two examples of a more specific procedure that Emerson uses to great effect in these two essays. Compare these two passages, and ask yourself—which essay does it come from?
I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.

For the time of towns is tolled from the world by funereal chimes, but in nature the universal hours are counted by succeeding tribes of animals and plants, and by growth of joy on joy. God wills also that thou abdicate a manifold and duplex life, and that thou be content that others speak for thee. Others shall be thy gentlemen and shall represent all courtesy and worldly life for thee; others shall do the great and resounding actions also. Thou shalt lie close hid with nature, and canst not be afforded to the Capitol or the Exchange. The world is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and this is thine; thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long season. This is the screen and sheath in which Pan has protected his well-beloved flower and thou shalt be known only to thine own, and they shall console thee with tenderest love.
If you guessed I would be tricky and put the second essay first and the first second, you’d be right. The mood of the two passages are so starkly opposed—the first depressing while the second, though speaking of the sad nature of the poet to be useless in society, makes it sound great. What I want to punch up are the two lines that express the same conceptual thought but in two precisely different attitudes, like an apple being looked at from two different directions. “Nature does not like to be observed” and “Thou shalt lie close hid with nature.” This is an allusion to an aphorism of Heraclitus, “nature loves to hide.” In the darker essay of “Experience,” Nature’s tendency to hide from us is really our fault, the “most unhandsome part of our condition.” But from a different direction, the poet is who transcends this condition (and thus liberating gods for it) though at the expense of being lost to social intercourse. (“To be great is to be misunderstood,” as Emerson says in “Self-Reliance.”) One more:
That also is the best success in conversation, the magic of liberty, which puts the world, like a ball, in our hands. How cheap even the liberty then seems; how mean to study, when an emotion communicates to the intellect the power to sap and upheave nature: how great the perspective! nations, times, systems, enter and disappear, like threads in tapestry of large figure and many colors; dream delivers us to dream, and, while the drunkenness lasts, we will sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in our opulence.

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.
Again, the moods are so clearly juxtaposed. The poet, drunk on his power to say, would sell off everything else—which is precisely the dark fringe to this dream, the nightmare hanging off in the wings: What if it is all an illusion? If it’s an illusion, then getting drunk on it seems to just double down on a shitty hand. Emerson’s early life took Humean skepticism very seriously, and these two passages perfectly illustrate Emerson’s constructive use of that early encounter. Emerson conceptualizes romanticism’s promise of power as a dream, which is both its best and worst feature. Progress is contingent on our ability to actualize the dream in the world, but what then is the world but an endless succession of particular people’s dreams? This is how you make the epistemological skepticism of Descartes, Berkeley, and Hume practical again. (Something, I should add, Hume I think already began to do if Annette Baier’s reading of him is right in A Progress of Sentiments.) For the output of this line is not paralysis, as a practically lived Cartesian skepticism would be—if you are self-conscious enough about mood circumscribing speech acts, as I think Emerson is, then the mood in which you become depressed about mood circumscribing speech acts and how it just shows it all to be a sham, an illusion, “so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within” [14]—then you’ll also recognize that sometimes you aren’t in that mood. And this suggests to me that the point of this juxtaposition of moods on the metaphor of dreams is that what we must really beware is not the act of saying tout court, but the drunkenness of dogmatism—self-reliant saying can forget its fallibility in its moment of power, of changing the shape of the world by changing what it is possible for us to dream of.

6.      Since Whicher supplies all the evidence needed to modulate his case, I think it’s easy to see the slant he puts on it as an unfortunate Mumfordism. While above I attempted to show what the conceptual source of the rhetoric of acquiescence was, it’s nearest historical source is Lewis Mumford’s groundbreaking and very influential The Golden Day (1926). With Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, and Waldo Frank, they composed the “Young American” critics, a group of wide-ranging intellectuals and cultural critics whose central philosophical preoccupation in the early 20th century was an attack on John Dewey and pragmatism for, essentially, not being radical enough. After Mumford’s chapter on the central American Romantics (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville), “The Golden Day,” follows his chapter on William Dean Howells, Twain, and William James, “The Pragmatic Acquiescence.”
What is valid in idealism is the belief in this process of re-molding, re-forming, re-creating, and so humanizing the rough chaos of existence. That belief had vanished: it no longer seemed a genuine possibility. … It was an act of grand acquiescence. Transcendentalism, as Emerson caustically said, had resulted in a headache; but the pragmatism that followed it was a paralysis. This generation had lost the power of choice; it bowed to the inevitable; it swam with the tide; and it went as far as the tide would carry it. [15]
I don’t wish to whitewash Mumford’s complex relationship to James, Dewey, and pragmatism, but his view of it was perhaps a little overinfluenced by Santayana’s criticism of Emerson through James as “the genteel tradition.” For it’s not hard to see how Emerson himself led to the situation—the divine providence that became Emerson’s Principle of Compensation later became what Emerson called “fate.”

Rather than confuting Mumford’s particular interpretation of pragmatism, I want to close by offering this more general observation about the conceptual resources of James and Dewey’s pragmatism. What I think Mumford and Whicher misunderstand about Emerson and the pragmatists is the importance of romantic self-transformation. They saw the essentially conservative character of “reality” and instrumentalism, but didn’t see how the Emersonian tradition was attempting to unlock a radically different orientation to a necessary recognition of the crossed axes of self-preservation and self-transformation. When Whicher sees Emerson try to assimilate the world’s resistance to the Poet’s Self-Reliance by his Principle of Compensation, he thinks Emerson has sold the pass to inevitability. In instrumentalism, we see how ends must first be fixed before deciding on what means or instruments one uses to carry out those ends, and thus how it doesn’t provide the opportunity to change those ends. But this understanding of Dewey’s instrumentalism completely ignores what Dewey tried to articulate in his notion of the means-ends continuum—that in the process of formulating a set of means to carry out a defined end we alter our sense of what end is desired, thus setting off a dialectic, as now new means are needed for the new end, the search for which will again alter the end-in-view, requiring new means, ad infinitum. [16] If we think of romanticism as the movement of thought that apotheosizes the transformative character of human power, we will see that while Mumford’s interpretation of pragmatism plays down the importance of romanticism in pragmatism in favor of Emerson and Whicher’s interpretation of Emerson plays down the importance of romanticism in Emerson in favor of pragmatism (unfortunately, on this view), and that what we really need is a view of Emerson and pragmatism that integrates their views of transformation and resistance, continuity and change, future and past into a coherent conceptual account. [17] It isn’t for them that we must do this, for it certainly may well turn out to be the case that we will have to reject some of their particular ways of understanding things—this is for us, for if Rorty is right, then figuring out how to get their conceptual projects to work is a way for us to understand how to get our conceptual projects to work.


[1] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 78

[2] This is obviously a very particular understanding of what philosophy is, roughly romantic. For example, it’s the picture that is unveiled in my discussion of John Barth—see the third section of "On Literature's Accidents."

[3] From the beginning of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which can be found in Berlin’s Russian Thinkers or The Proper Study of Mankind.

[4] Quoted in Christopher Tayler’s “Tables and Chairs,” London Review of Books, March 21, 2013.

[5] This was the burden of Robert Brandom’s “Vocabularies of Pragmatism,” in his Perspectives on Pragmatism. Rorty’s response was that Brandom’s paper gave him “a more flattering view of the course of my work than before. Brandom has suggested a coherence between my earlier and my later writings that had not occurred to me. I had not seen that there was a connection between the eliminative materialism I was urging in the 1960s and the private-public distinction I have been urging since Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. My unconscious has been more cunning than I had realized” (“Response to Brandom,” 190n4, in Rorty and His Critics).

[6] When you look at Hawthorne, you find a writer with a fairly stable vocabulary for tropes, an intense desire to make those tropes about troping, and an abiding concern about his ability to trope—so we can spot a trajectory wherein many of Hawthorne’s tales and sketches thematize the problem of writing within them, to his three vital novels—all in some manner internalizing the problem of writing, whether Hester’s needlework or Holgrave’s daguerreotyping or Coverdale the minor transcendental poet—to the final Marble Faun, all about death, representation, and the death of representation. Tack on Hawthorne’s inability to finish his final projects and you have a pretty good outline for a “death of the imagination” narrative. (If you want a display of what "thematizing the problem of writing" means, you might check out section 2 of "Work and Idleness.") When you look at Melville, you find a writer fascinated by the act of storytelling, but struggling to find his real voice as a writer. All his books through Moby-Dick are first-person narratives, and after encountering Hawthorne’s work and its literary-conceptual gymnastics, Melville writes his Great Book, publishes it, begins writing the next, and as the bad reviews of Moby-Dick come out, we can see him transforming Pierre into something that seems designed to fail (gloriously, for the book is brilliant). And The Confidence-Man—there’s no protagonist, no narrative! (On the surface, only, of course.) After that he gives up prose entirely for poetry, never publishing another story (Billy Budd was unfinished and posthumous) and writing the longest poem in English (barring, I believe, The Faerie Queene), nearly 18,000 lines, and some other short lyrics in the last 30+ years of his life. This story, reading his increasing impenetrability as a form of private expression, is the burden of Edgar Dryden’s Monumental Melville.

[7] Along with F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), which obviously has a much larger scope. I hope to say something about Matthiessen’s book soon.

[8] See the “Introduction” to Nehamas’s The Art of Living. Nehamas makes a number of other distinctions in approaching theory and philosophy, all of which are pertinent to understanding Emerson. In particular, as Nehamas himself notes, the kind of philosopher his study is in large part about (Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault) are often called “literary” because central to their act of philosophy is the process of self-creation that happens in the written medium. Additionally, Nehamas’s exemplars “do not insist that their life is a model for the world at large. They do not want to be imitated, at least not directly. That is, they believe that those who want to imitate them must develop their own art of living, their own self, perhaps to exhibit it for others but not so that others imitate them directly. Imitation, in this context, is to become someone on one’s own; but the someone one becomes must be different from one’s model” (10). The relationship to the Emerson who said “imitation is suicide” (“The Poet”) and the Thoreau who said “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account” (Walden, Ch. 1) should be obvious. However, Nehamas has never given any attention to the relationship (genealogical or otherwise) between Emerson and Nietzsche, though everyone who works on either is well aware of it. Nehamas’s story in that book is structured by the obsession his three later writers had with Socrates (and, hence, Plato). And given that two major heroes and influences on Emerson were Plato and Montaigne, there might be an interesting story to tell about the refraction of ideas through all these prisms of intellectual power and self-reliance.

[9] Considering Emerson’s Principle of Transition, that “power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition” (“Self-Reliance”), an argument could be made about the nature of Nature’s power being based on its slippery fluidity. That is, however, not an argument I intend on making, nor will I discuss the Principle of Transition. Nature is great fun, but Emerson’s acme is in the 1840s work.

[10] Buell, Emerson, 98

[11] Emerson’s Fall, 29

[12] The argument I would make about Emerson’s central line of thought—which is clearly well beyond the space afforded here, and beyond my present grasp anyway—is analogous to the arguments Hans Blumenberg and Bernard Yack mount against philosophers of history like Karl Löwith and Eric Voegelin. The latter two basically formulate narratives in which today’s modern, secular problems are simply the revenging of old, religious problems because our secular terms are simply written over the palimpsest of religion. (This is sometimes called the “secularization thesis,” and Löwith’s Meaning in History is paradigmatic.) By contrast, Blumenberg and Yack in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age and The Longing for Total Revolution, respectively, attempt to show how some secular conceptual mechanics are genuinely new moves that produce new problems with no precursor in the older modes of thought. What I think is important in understanding Emerson are the reasons for his formulation of self-reliance as self-reliance, and not “God-reliance,” in Whicher’s very influential conflation (57). There’s no doubt in my mind that Emerson sincerely believed that God was within, and so that self-reliance was in some way God-reliance, but the conceptual work being done by his formulations of self-reliance were ultimately antithetical to belief in any and every form of God that is not found within—and this means that most forms of religion are behind the Emersonian curve. Furthermore, I think there’s a reason why his synonym for self-reliance in “Self-Reliance” is “self-trust” and not “self-faith” as well.

[13] May 26, 1837

[14] This is from the extraordinary close of Ch. 42 of Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” I use it here as a placeholder for a larger discussion about the Melvillean and Emersonian strands of antirepresentationalism that I find pervasive in the central American Romantics. For in “Experience,” Emerson comes as close as he can get to the apocalyptic pessimism Melville displays in his mature work about the very possibility of representation, of there being any point to this pathetic negotiation we call “life.” Emerson articulates it—and somehow swerves back to optimism. I think of Melville and Emerson standing to each other as, in a manner, Derrida stands to Rorty. Rorty recognizes Derrida’s “arguments” as having an affinity to pragmatism’s antirepresentationlism, but equally that that rejection does not a pragmatist make. To make inroads on this angle, one should coordinate “The Whiteness of the Whale” with Derrida’s “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” (in his Margins of Philosophy). Compare Ishmael’s rhetorical question, “is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” to Derrida’s thesis: “White mythology—metaphysics has erased within itself the fabulous scene that has produced it, the scene that nevertheless remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest” (213).

[15] The Golden Day, 83 of the 1957 Beacon Paperback edition

[16] Brandom has reformulated Dewey’s notion of the means-ends continuum for Rorty’s notion of what Brandom calls the “vocabulary vocabulary”: “Every use of a vocabulary, every application of a concept in making a claim, both is answerable to norms implicit in communal practice—its public dimension, apart from which it cannot mean anything (though it can cause something)—and transforms those norms by its novelty—its private dimension, apart from which it does not formulate a belief, plan, or purpose worth expression” ("Vocabularies of Pragmatism," Perspectives on Pragmatism, 153). It's worth pointing out that here Brandom is attempting to assimilate some very specialized points in the philosophy of language with Rorty's taking up of the Mill-Berlin tradition of articulating a public/private distinction in order defend liberalism, but that given Emerson's own preoccupation with the distiction society and solitude, there might be some interesting resources in Emerson to think through this angle on pragmatism that Brandom has done so well in bringing to light. For a different application of Brandom's philosophy of language to the public/private distinction, see my "A Spatial Model of Belief Change."

[17] Despite the previous note, Brandom has rejected romanticism as an important genealogical root of pragmatism. See my discussion of this in “Pragmatism as Enlightened Romanticism.”

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